I know, because my Plan A crashed and burned. I had, against the odds, gotten into an excellent university, heading for a science major--something girls hardly ever tried, in those days. I had fought off years of disapproval by those who thought a child of divorce--especially a girl child of divorce--should be submissive and humble and agree to be a meek little marginal character, doomed to fail at everything. I got away, I thought. And then...I failed. Spectacularly, in more than one area. My Plan A was gone, and I had no Plan B...I had not thought of failure, only of what lay beyond that first success, that first degree.
When an intelligent, focused, ambitious young person--the very kind who does not have a Plan B, because so far they've been on target with their Plan A--fails, it produces a level of shame, guilt, despair, hopelessness that shakes that individual's whole being. And if a Plan B isn't cobbled together fairly quickly, it can lead to suicide. The lure of ending it--of being rid of the pain and the torment of everyone knowing about the failure--is very strong, especially to those who haven't failed before. "Failure is not an option" is a fine thing to say to a group of engineers working on a problem---but the student who has just failed at something knows that failure is not just an option--it's now a big black line between what you were, and the future you used to have, and what you are now, and the future that's left.
Surviving failure is an essential life skill, as important as knowing how to drive a car or use a computer. We will all fail at things, if we do anything at all. If we don't flunk any courses, we can still be fired despite doing a good job. We can still be dumped by someone we love. We can still discover that we aren't who we thought we were--in a bad way. That failure may be measured in one's own value system or may be an imposed definition from outside--but if it feels like failure (failing oneself, or failing someone else) then it has the same dynamic. People who don't succeed the way their family (or culture) expects them to can feel like failures even though they're succeeding in their own field. (My mother had black hair. All her cousins were blond, and her grandmother criticized her black hair and darker skin. To the end of her life she felt ugly and also guilty because she couldn't get over the feeling. Is being born with straight black hair "failure" just because a slew of cousins had curly blond hair? No, but her blond grandmother made her think it was.) Most of us fail at more than one thing in life, and it never feels good. So failure, and the feelings that go with it, are common...and thus everyone needs to know when and how to construct a Plan B (or C, or D, or...)
But surviving failure isn't taught, which is kind of like not telling people on a hurricane coast how to survive a hurricane.
Essential to surviving failure is both knowing and believing that the black pit that comes with failure is not forever...as long as you don't do anything terminal, like killing yourself. Failure is survivable. Other people have failed (probably many of them in the same way.) Other people have flunked courses. Other people have been humiliated by rejection. Other people have gone bankrupt. Etc, etc, etc. It's true that some failures foreclose some future possibilities...but those aren't the only possibilities. Plan A (anybody's Plan A) doesn't include all the possibilities, or all the potential good in life. If my Plan A had succeeded, I most likely would not have written any novels, because I'd have been too busy with the demanding career I'd hoped for. If, later, Plans B, C, and D had succeeded, I still might not have written any novels. Nor would I have been in the right place at the right time to adopt our son...and that by itself would have ensured a different life...but not a better one.)
And if I had killed myself, in the storm of grief that came with my first big failure--not impossible, though it didn't happen...then none of the things I've done since I was 19 would have come to pass. Does that matter? I think so. The lives lost to suicide matter--not more than those lost to trauma or illness, but also no less. Things only those people could think, could create, could do...will not be thought, created, done.
Lack of a Plan B made my recovery from failure slower...I had to spend time piecing one together from what seemed like useless little fragments after the great crash. But a Plan B was possible...and Plan B rattled along, not so smoothly as Plan A had, eventually getting me through college. Other plans (B and B' and C) had their own problems, but by C I was beginning to catch on, beginning to realize that I was going to fail more than once, and (having survived the first big one) was going to survive the others, uncomfortable as they'd be. So I'd better figure out how to cope, what strategies would come up with the next plan more quickly and (though never painless) less painfully.
I had some help with creating that first Plan B. A couple of poems. The example of some older adults who had, I knew, failed at things that meant a lot to them and yet made a good life for themselves anyway. But ideally young people could learn to make a Plan B--and cope with failure without going into months' long declines and maybe suicide--before the crisis arrives. When the mind is still clear enough to think (with some help) how to deal with the predictable stresses of college, including those other students whose maturity level is...not what it should be. What do you do when you flunk half your courses? When you find out you're gay? When you find out your roommate is (any of the bad things roommates can be?) When you've made a fool of yourself with someone who dumps you very publicly? When you're on the team and have a career-ending injury? Etc...all the things that students can experience as "failure" whether or not they are, objectively, failure...but Plan A is in shambles.
Older adults, who have experienced and survived failure, could be a valuable resource for those who have only a Plan A, if willing to talk about their own failures and the strategies that got them through. But of course, some of that's going to sound preachy to the adolescent (a reason to start earlier, she mutters...) My whole generation expected to be dead before 30--or at least 35, when we were mostly convinced that people turned into cement blocks, as far as interesting went. We thought WW III was coming, nuclear annihilation...and now we're sixty-something. (The realization hit long before, of course. "Wait--we're 30--and still alive--so--shouldn't we be doing something with our lives? If we're going to live...") So our interest in hearing "Just keep plugging along" was about as low as it could go. A life of acting like a cement block? Yuck!
And yet...hanging on, not giving up, keeping busy, plugging along, etc.--all the cliches--actually did contribute to the Plans B-through-whatever one I'm on now. Failure kept happening. Recovery kept happening. Dream after dream went down the tubes, and new ones surfaced. Doors slammed shut--rows of them--but over there in the corner was a weak spot in the wall. One last whack with a sledgehammer and...a way out of that trap. Maybe.
Yet, though the struggle is said to be character-building, I don't feel character-built, exactly. And I think leaving someone to dangle in ignorance, flailing around, because it builds character, is the wrong way to go--better to teach the skills needed and then let the kid (if you start at kid age) do the flailing around with some skills. We don't turn people loose in a car without teaching them something about driving safely...we don't expect everyone to re-invent how to make bread or how to do brain surgery. We are losing people--including a lot of young people with years of potential ahead of them--because they don't know how to survive failure, don't know how to create their own Plan B. We need to figure out how to teach that, and especially how to convey to the bright, goal-oriented ones with only a Plan A and a strong sense of responsibility that it's OK to think about, and devise, a Plan B (and C, D, E...) that this is not weakness, or lack of commitment to their Plan A. Not going to be easy. But might save some lives.